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The spike in COVID-19 cases among University of Michigan students isn’t the result of in-person classes, but of social gatherings that violate public health guidelines, school leaders said at a panel Tuesday.
Jimena Loveluck, Washtenaw County health officer, joined the U-M administrators to discuss the stay-in-place order for U-M undergraduates announced earlier in the day.
The order says all U-M undergraduate students must remain in their current residence until Nov. 3 at 7 a.m., respond to contact tracers and isolate if COVID-19 positive. There are various exemptions, including attending in-person classes, working, voting, exercising with one other person and attending to basic needs.
“This is not an ideal situation,” Preeti Malani, the University’s Chief Health Office, said.
Most U-M undergraduate classes will move online for the rest of the semester by default. Instructors will reach out to students for limited in-person exceptions.
Loveluck said the order targeted undergraduates because the data showed that 99% of student cases in the last week have come from students aged 18-21, the typical age range for most undergraduate students.
According to a Tuesday press release from the health department, more than 600 confirmed and probable cases have been reported in the county in the past week. Of those cases, 61% were connected to University students living on or off campus, with “many in congregate or group settings.”
Loveluck noted the order is not “completely a quarantine order,” meaning students will still be able to attend any remaining in-person classes, get food and go to the doctor. She said she could not predict whether the order would be extended beyond Nov. 3.
“The goal really is to decrease the social gatherings that are occurring that are really spurring the spread and transmission of COVID-19,” Loveluck said. “This measure is really … giving us an opportunity to do everything possible to decrease and change these trends that we’re seeing.”
Though the University’s COVID-19 dashboard lists quarantine and isolation occupancy at 52.8%, both Malani and University Health Services Director Robert Ernst said occupancy is currently around 60%.
“If things don’t change in terms of the trajectory, we might max out of that in short order,” Ernst said.
Ernst said the University saw a rise in cases off campus in mid-September, but it was able to mitigate spread with targeted measures. He said cases never fell back to the beginning of the semester’s baseline. For this current spike, contact tracers have not been able to hit their target of reaching 75% of cases within the first 24 hours.
“This rush of cases that we have seen just shows how one outbreak can really overwhelm the system,” Ernst said.
Ernst said building-wide testing in Mary Markley Residence Hall — likely the site of a cluster of more than 100 cases — revealed a 7.5% positivity rate.
University President Mark Schlissel said the order falls under the Student Declarations of Rights and Responsibilities, meaning students could face normal disciplinary procedures if they violate it.
He said students who choose to remain on campus need to commit to following the public health guidelines for the next two weeks. Those who decide to leave campus are expected to remain at their permanent residences.
“Hopefully when that order expires the last two weeks of the semester we’ll be able to lighten up, but you’re making a commitment to be compliant if you stay — it’s really, really important,” Schlissel said.
Martino Harmon, vice president of Student Life, said some University Housing residents have already had their contracts revoked for breaking public health guidelines. Housing has logged over 1,100 violations of COVID-19 protocols in residence halls this year, he said.
Panelists acknowledged that with the planned in-person portion of the semester ending in a month, many students may look to leave campus early. Ernst said UHS is working with Housing on a testing and checkout procedure.
In March, Housing offered students who left campus after the shutdown a $1,200 refund. If a student chooses to leave Housing for the semester, Martino said a room and board refund will be calculated based on the number of days a student did not live in Housing. Refunds may not be completely prorated because the University has to cover fixed costs such as utilities and services for students unable to leave, Harmon said.
Schlissel defended the order’s exemption for U-M athletics, saying the risk of transmission is “quite low” among student-athletes thanks to daily testing provided by the Big Ten.
“We’re pretty satisfied that they can both practice and compete and actually travel in a safe fashion,” Schlissel said. “It was exempted because it’s not where disease is.”
Schlissel said high levels of cases among football players and other U-M teams could lead to restrictions on competition. The Michigan football team is scheduled to play the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis on Saturday.
Harmon confirmed fraternity and sorority chapters have had multiple clusters. Recent reporting from The Michigan Daily uncovered one cluster in Fraternity & Sorority Life.
Loveluck said the county health department has worked with the University’s Environment, Health and Safety department to review fraternity and sororities’ COVID-19 plans.
“It’s really been a team effort in addressing these clusters,” Loveluck said.
Daily Staff Reporter Calder Lewis can be reached at email@example.com.
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